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Why Clear and Consistent Boundaries are Good for Children

‘The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Psalm 16:6 

A group of landscape architects conducted a study in the early 2000s to determine what impact a fence might have on children’s behavior at a playground. In the study, a teacher took her preschoolers to a playground with slides and swings and other equipment they are familiar with. The playground did not have a fence. On another day, the teacher took the same students to a comparable playground with a fence.  

On the playground without a fence, the children stayed huddled around their teacher, fearful, and not exploring the full playground space. On the playground with a fence as a defined border, the children played freely, away from the teacher, exploring the full playground within the visible limits.  

The results show that clear and defined limits and boundaries give children a sense of security and safety to explore freely and develop their sense of self. 

This is true not just for fences and playgrounds, but for limits, boundaries and rules at home. Some obvious ones for younger children might be a set bedtime, clearing their dishes from the dinner table, or picking up their toys before they leave a room. For older children, it might be a screen time limit, the age at which they get a phone, or how many people they can have in a car when they are driving. 

What type of fence is your parenting style?

Now think of these rules as a fence. There are many types of fences and many types of parenting styles. A split-rail fence seems nice and attractive but might have too much space for small children to crawl through. A solid cast iron fence that has no flexibility will only frustrate our children and not teach them healthy ways to explore on their own. 

Ideally, our rules should be like a picket fence – straight, sturdy, well-defined and attractive. There could be a few inches of space between the slats so our children can see the “inheritance” on the other side. It can be high enough that small children are safe, but low enough that as they grow, they can see over the fence. This represents freedom to explore what’s over the fence as they grow older and make decisions for themselves. 

Picket fences are sturdy, consistent, and attractive. It is important to communicate our rules and consequences clearly and firmly but with love. Also, giving a valid reason for the rule, so that our children do not get frustrated in following the rule.

The hard part comes when our children bump up against a rule they may not like. It is so important that our fence is made of sturdy material so that our children know the rules are solid and in place because we love them. We do not want our fences to sway, bend or fall over as soon as our children push up against them. On the other hand, we do not want them to be injured by a fence that is too rigid. I see both as common problems today. 

Weak Fences

If our kids see that we might budge on a rule, they are going to keep pushing until the fence falls. We may put the fence back up, but now the foundation is weakened. The next time they push on the fence, it will fall easier. 

Say your child is supposed to clear his dinner dishes from the table, rinse them and load them in the dishwasher. But one night he “forgets” and leaves the kitchen without doing so. In the moment, it may seem easier to do his dishes rather than calling him back to do it himself. If this continues night after night and you do not address it, the fence is bending, the foundation weakening. Your child will keep “forgetting.” This is wearisome for us as parents to have our fences knocked down and walked over. 

It also is not healthy for our children for many reasons. We think we are being nice by giving them a rest from their chore. But really, we are teaching them that it is okay to ignore a rule or maybe that rule is not very important. Pretty soon, guess who will be clearing and rinsing dishes every night instead of our child? This teaches a child entitlement, which is not a good trait as he grows older. It also tells our child that he does not need to respect you or your rules. 

Rigid Fences

I also see problems at the other end – rules that are too rigid and consequences that do not match the infraction. For instance, what if your child leaves the kitchen without clearing his dishes. Would you take his phone away for a week? This punishment is not a natural consequence because it is not related to the crime. If we exact arbitrary, unreasonable punishments, our children will become embittered and may rebel. To our children, these harsh rules look like a very tall fence with no space between the slats. The fence feels formidable and harsh. A child may go up to it but they can’t see around or over it. Especially if we are not giving them a chance to ask questions or express themselves. 

We need to closely examine the motivations for our rules. Are we parenting out of fear that our children do not fail or make a mistake? Are we exacting consequences out of anger? Do we establish rules to make us feel in control?  

A more natural consequence for the above scenario is that you leave his dinner dishes on the table. When he wants to go outside to play or watch TV, you calmly (not with anger or a raised voice) remind him that his dishes are still in need of his attention. He cannot play or watch until he takes care of them. Notice there is no accusation in that reminder, no condemnation or judgment, no yelling. It is just a fact that can be stated plainly and objectively.

God has given us a path of life to walk with pleasant boundaries. We are free to relish in the abundant joy that comes from following Him. When we wander off the path, He offers grace and mercy, but also gentle correction. So too we need to offer that to our children – a path of life that is safe, consistent, secure and loving and allows them room to make mistakes and to grow.